Recently I took a straw poll of friends asking:
Who do you think is the most important songwriter to come out of the Northwest? This is not a quiz and there are no wrong answers.
Some of the responses were obvious, many were downright baffling and others were very close to what my personal belief of what a songwriter truly is. I left my question open-ended as an experiment to find out what others might give their explanation of what and whom constitutes an important songwriter. I made sure to tell those I polled there were no wrong answers, allowing them to offer up names without spending too much time or offering up suggestions simply because they thought the person they chose was based on others’ (especially critics’) dubbing that artist as “most important” Several people went on to ask what I defined as “important”. My reply was that I did not want to define the term. Everyone uses different criteria of what is “important”; besides I was more interested in others’ opinions, than my own. I asked people to decide what was important to them because this was also an exercise was for me to understand what other people considered worthy. I wanted to learn about how others saw things and challenge myself a bit in what I personally feel is important in a songwriting. I saw this as just as much a lesson for me. It was by no means a popularity contest.
So here I’ll take my natural tendency to digress.
I am a fan of good songwriting. I cannot put my finger on what it is exactly but I have certain criteria. I think when a song’s lyric is written in a way that it may be interpreted universally by listeners is a good start. This is probably why so many songs deal in lyrics about the many states of love; from it’s stirrings, it’s longings, it’s attainment and it’s loss. I believe original, creative lyrics are important, but I know they are not always crucial to good songwriting. They don’t need to be about love…but they usually speak to the human condition. Beyond the universality of lyrics, the actual music is just as important. I think sometimes people put more emphasis on lyrics rather than their combination with melody or arrangement. In my opinion all good songs are founded in the music. I suppose most people at least subconsciously know that, despite the overemphasis of lyrics alone. But there’s no doubt a lyric can as easily set the mood as a melody.
Anyone who’s listened to the work of Frank Zappa might point to “Peaches En Regalia” (among others) as an example of brilliant songwriting without the use of lyrics. None of us can say what the song is actually about (except peaches dressed in the signs of their royal or noble status?) but there’s no doubt this song-among many other instrumentals-has been crafted, and composed in a way that each and every note seems to belongs exactly where it lies. It seems unlikely that anyone else would compose this particular song other than Frank Zappa. It contains a mix of elaborate musicianship, purposely-cheesy sounding orchestration and themes and a distinct left-of-center pop sensibility, although it’s highly influenced by jazz. For all it’s grandiosity of Peaches en Regalia uses an economy of tones and instrumentation. It relies more on the unusual juxtaposition of sounds and an exceptional thematic device. More precisely; it’s fun to listen to.
On the other hand sometimes lyrics carry the day…a witty, unusual, or unexpected lyric might save an otherwise mediocre melody, but good songwriting rarely relies on the melody alone The truth, to me, is that good songwriting is the result of craftspeople who devote their lives to songwriting, with little regard to who records their material….even themselves. This is what makes Leiber and Stoller, Carole King and Gerry Goffin, Burt Bacharach and Hal David, Lennon and McCartney (together or separately) soar above the rest. Songwriting is a craft unto itself to these writers It goes beyond the performance of others, though there certainly are a large number of songwriters that are best suited to record their own material. All of this congealed during the mid-19th century “Tin Pan Alley” an actual place in Manhattan on West 28th Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues, “Tin Pan Alley” later became a collective term for the musicians, songwritersand publishers who dominated New Yorks’ popular music up until the mid-20th century. If you ever visit New York City you will find a comerrative plaque on the sidewalk on 28th Street between Sixth St. and Broadway. Later, as songwriters drifted into the early days of rock and pop The Brill Building (1619 Broadway) was considered their spiritual home. The building had previously been a hotbed of activity for songwriting and publishing of music for the “big bands” like those of Benny Goodman or The Dorsey brothers. In the 1950s and the early 1960s songwriters like Neil Diamond, Ellie Greenwich, Johnny Mercer, Billy Rose, Bobby Darin and Neil Sedaka Goffin and King, Leiber and Stoller emerged from The Brill building. It proved to be a very successful time for songwriters pumping out well-crafted songs for teen idols, budding pop-stars and “girl groups”. During the mid-60s “Tin Pan Alley” and The Brill Building became somewhat outdated. By this time bands, individuals and those who would become singer/songwriters emerged, as well as the pop music charts becoming extremely influenced by “The British Invasion” The British had styled their s roots in the American blues rather than American popular music in general. Soon the center of the music world shifted to the west coast even though many New York City-based songwriters were still able to create a hit or two.
In many cases the craftsmanship of songwriting is enhanced by the writers’ own renditions of their work.. This is the case with the aforementioned Elvis Costello or the collective work of a band like XTC. Although I’d say there have been successful interpretations of Elvis Costello songs, it’s Elvis that usually supplies the definitive version. In the case of XTC, it’s hard to imagine anyone else properly interpreting their work.
Other times we can actually hear and imagine the songwriter’s “voice” when a particular song is covered. A case in point is The Monkee’s version of Neil Diamond’s “I’m a Believer”…really, who else could have written this song besides Neil? Even though Diamond released his own version of it (about a year after The Monkee’s hit version) The song attributed to The Monkees is the one that counts and it should be! The performance was actually recorded by guitarists Al Gorgoni and Sal Ditroia, Buddy Saltzman on drums, Carol Kaye on bass, Artie Butler on the Vox Continental organ and the song’s producer, Jeff Barry, adding piano and tambourine.
It is Micky Dolenz’ vocals that add the typical Monkees sound, but the craftsmanship of Neil Diamond is the real star, no matter who played on the recording. Aside from being a huge hit for The Monkees, Diamond once again shows his prowess as a songwriter because the song has also successfully interpreted by other artists-from The Four Tops to Robert Wyatt (his first recording after the June 1973 accident that left him a paraplegic). It’s also famously been recorded by Smash Mouth for the film Shrek in 2001 but not quite as inventive or successful as other versions.
Another case may be made for the song “Theme from The Valley of The Dolls” as interpreted by Dionne Warwick. The song itself was written by André and Dory Previn, instead of Dionne’s usual writers throughout her career, Hal David and Burt Bacharach. Despite the mighty trio of Warwick, David and Bacharach, The Theme From The Valley of The Dolls remains as powerful an interpretation as anything else she has sung. Of course it is Dionne’s incredible reading of the song that makes it so heart-tugging and melancholy as well as hopeful. Another example of an interpretation of brilliant songwriting by another artist is Elvis Costello’s rendition of “(What’s So Funny ‘bout) Peace Love and Understanding?” I know I’m treading on thin ice here, but I’d say Costello’s rendition of an excellent song written by the gifted Nick Lowe is the definitive version of the song. I believe this not only a sign of a great interpreter of another’s song, but also the sign of Lowe’s ability to write a near-perfect, unforgettable anthem.
My point (and I know I’ve been exhaustive about it) is that there is an animal called “the songwriter” whose first duty is to write solid, universal themes that combine well thought out lyrics and original, innovative musical themes. This is a craft that takes hard work….much harder than merely performing the song, although a good song always deserves a good interpreter.. A good songwriter sculpts the song like Michelangelo, who claimed the end product was already within the stone. It was his job to chip away enough to reveal what was already there.
Getting back to my straw poll, none of the writers’ work included writers included in the “Great American Songbook”. Although Spokane’s Al and Charles Rinker are considered among the talents of the era, The more famous can be said to emerge out of the Northwest from that era is not someone we’d think or as a songwriter; it is the singer; Bing Crosby. In the late 1920s Bing joined his Spokane friend Al Rinker and pianist/singer Harry Barris to form The Rhythm Boys, who were featured as part of Paul Whiteman’s Orchestra. They had phenomenal success with both Rinker and Harris’s compositions as well as others’ writing. The song below was written by Bing Crosby and Harry Barris. The song isn’t the most memorable of their output, but I’ve included it as an example of Bing Crosby’s early crack as a writer.
Al Rinker’s brother Charles wrote twenty-seven songs with Gene de Paul (who’d also written with Johnny Mercer) including “Your Name is Love”, which has been recorded by George Shearing and Nancy Wilson as well as other songs written by himself that have been recorded by Frankie Lane, Red McKenzie, Shearing, Nancy Wilson, and Alan Dawson. Although both Al and Charles Rinker were capable songwriters who crafted their music it’s hard to think of them as “important” since they are all but forgotten today.
I admit (once again) that I believe one of the hallmarks of an important songwriter is their ability to affect interpretations and long-term influence. This can be somewhat confounding, because a composer’s work may be forgotten today, but at some time in the future re-discovered and influence unborn generations. For my purposes I will only reflect on writers that we consider estimable from any time in the past up to the current era. We cannot look into the future, nor can we anticipate a great songwriter’s work ever coming to light.
So let’s return to the original question:
Who do you think is the most important songwriter to come out of the Northwest?
This was the question I asked in my straw poll, but I also invite YOU to ponder this messy question. After all, the Northwest has a history of producing “important” songwriters, keeping in mind that the question in itself is based not only opinion, but personal taste and perhaps even a history of songwriting on your own part; and as I pointed out, there are no wrong answers
It shouldn’t come as a prize that the most often songwriter mentioned (according to my unscientific poll). was Kurt Cobain. There’s absolutely no doubt he could write an excellent pop song, and partially wrap it up as something that could be defined loosely as “punk”. I will refrain from the title “grunge” because I find it a useless and intellectually lazy…Any group of artists who’s output includes songs as diverse as Pearl Jam’s “Even Flow”, Seven Year Bitch’s M.I.A. or Nirvana’s cover of David Bowie’s “The Man Who Sold The World” does not define a genre. It might mark a period of successful Northwest bands, but the term itself denies the individuality of the bands who fall under this nonsensical term. We can’t even compare it to the thread that ran through the 1960’s “San Francisco Sound” which largely relied on one similar electric guitar sound.
So, we know the place Kurt Cobain many people attribute to him. I believe most of Kurt’s talent was in listening intently to what had come before him, whether it was The Beatles or one of his particular favorites, Sonic Youth. He was able to distill everything from metal to punk to Americana and pop in crafting his songs. The only question we can ask is, had he lived longer would his output have been as high-quality as what he left us? We’ll never know.
The second most mentioned songwriter was Jimi Hendrix. This seemed perplexing to me since I have always considered him an innovator and a performer rather than a songwriter; but looking a bit closer I can see brilliance in his writing, even though his output is far less than I’d have liked to see. I’d always seen his real strength as innovating the sound of the electric guitar and his incredible showmanship. It was possible for him to “ramble” along a riff, playing guitar, with no discernable song structure, and still overwhelm and amaze his listeners. I will admit I thought that the core of his guitar pyrotechnics was strong, but were birthed by somewhat derivative standard blues riffs. Looking back this was a common practice among his contemporaries, especially among the British where he spent a lot of his later years.
His strong suit was exploding and expanding from his riff. Even though I am a huge fan of his playing and performance I consider a handful of his songs contain signs of great songwriting in them. For instance“The Wind Cries Mary”, “If Six Were Nine” and my personal favorite “Angel”. It’s fairly well-known that “Amgel” was written about a dream Jimi had of his mother coming to him after her death. The song is considered by many (myself included) as the best song Jimi Hendrix ever wrote. Again, I understand I may be walking on thin ice here; but the theme, it’s lyrics and it’s lovely melody is so universal that it can mean something special, for many reasons to its listeners. It’s also telling that Hendrix spent about two years perfecting the song and how he wanted to record it. One other aspect we might consider is near the time of his death, Jimi was contemplating an entirely different approach to his music.
Some folk writers were mentioned, but to be fair I think some of the best folk writers near the Pacific Northwest happen to be Canadian. If Ian Tyson (of “Ian and Sylvia” and “The Great Speckled Bird”) had been born 20 miles south of his hometown of Victoria B.C. he’d be one of my top candidates for important Norhtwest songwriters. However, due to the constraints placed on my own choice of covering only the history of NW music of the U.S. I thought it unfair to include anything outside Washington, Oregon and Idaho. Ian Tyson has written an incredible song book including “Someday Soon” and “Four Strong Winds” His songs have been covered by Neil Young, Moe Bandy, Johnny Cash, Hank Snow, Bob Dylan,The Kingston Trio Marianne Faithfull, John Denver, Trini Lopez, Waylon Jennings, Joan Baez, Glen Yarborough, Bobby Bare, Harry Belafonte, Tanya Tucker, Suzy Bogguss, Lynn Anderson and countless others. Although Canadians could reasonably disagree, perhaps the most popular (and most definitive version outside of Tyson’s) is “Someday Soon”sung by the Seattle-born Judy Collins. But Tyson is a near-mythic figure in Canada, and will always be considered as one of the most important songwriters in Canadian history no matter if we include British Columbia as part of the Pacific Northwest or not. He is identified and rightly claimed as a purely Canadian artist.
Loretta Lynn was mentioned; an excellent choice. But Loretta will always be “A Coal Miner’s Daughter” and though she lived in Washington, and her career was kickstarted here with the help of Buck Owens, Kentucky has always been her real home in her heart, and it’s there and Nashville that she’s written the bulk of her output.
Local heroes like Scott MacCaughey, Rusty Willoughby. Alice Stewart, Gary Minkler, Pete Pendras, Jon Auer, Ken Stringfellow, Eric Apoe and Ben Gibbard were were all mentioned as “important” songwriters.. There’s no doubt these artists deserve respect for their work…I’d only add that Gary Minkler, over the past five decades, is also one of the most dynamic performers the Northwest has ever produced.
Ann and Nancy Wilson of Heart got lots of recognition. Although Heart put out some spectacular music, not all of it was written by the Wilson sisters collectively or apart. Very early on the two of them brought in the very talented songwriter abnd collaborator, Sue Ennis, to work with them. Sue would eventually go on to be one of the members of the Wilson’s post-Heart projects; The Love Mongers. We can’t dismiss the Wilson sisters’ work, but Sue Ennis may be the least-known of great Northwest songwriters. Her work with the Wilsons helped mere rock songs and ballads become great songs and ballads.
Quincy Jones is another good example of a writer whose output will always be considered genius even though his writing seems secondary to other facets of his career. He isn’t particularly known for his songwriting simply because it is overshadowed by his career as an excellent jazz performer, and later as one of the world’s most renowned producers and arrangers.
Ray Charles was mentioned several times for his R&B contributions. Although there’s no doubt he was a dedicated and talented performer, he’s often assumed to have written many songs he did not actually write. The best examples of this are the songs “Georgia On My Mind”, his definitive version of a song written by Hoagy Carmichael and Stuart Gorrell in 1930. Another of Ray Charles’ signature tunes is “Hit The Road Jack”. The song was written by a friend of Ray Charles, Percy Mayfield. Mayfield initially recorded a demo of the song for Art Rupe, a producer and one of the most influential figures in the US music industry at the time. Rupe was running Specialty Records, and “Hit The Road Jack” found it’s way to Ray Charles rather than be fully recorded by Percy Mayfield. This may be evidence that Charles himself was not as important a songwriter as others, but there’s little doubt he is one of the most influential artists in American music. No legitmate list of the most imortant American artists would be complete without him.
Mia Zapata was also mentioned by many people; a songwriter that left us too early to provide the much larger body of work she otherwise might have given us; still she certainly inspired one of the most powerful, angry and cathartic songs of 90s Seattle music- M.I.A – a song by Seven Year Bitch that I’ve already mentioned.
It had to be pointed out more than once that there were actual women songwriters who need to be mentioned. Perhaps it is the male domination of rock fans that prevents more talented women their due. Aside from the aforementioned Wilson sisters, Mia Zapata and Alice Stewart there is a plethora of women writers that deserve to be mentioned: Carrie Acre, Amy Denio Kathleen Hanna, Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein, Jean Grey, Kimya Dawson, Neko Case all deserve recognition, and I’m certain there are far more that I’m failing to mention. What’s more, these women should not be consigned to a ghetto of being “women” or “girls” Their output is just as important-sometimes more important-than their male counterparts and a good songwriter does not rely on sex
Surprisingly it also had to be pointed out that Portland and the rest of Oregon are part of the Northwest too. The prolific Chris Newman, Fred Cole, Greg Sage among others got mention. Eastern Washington seemed to be under-represented too. Folk singer and songwriter Danny O’Keefe (Wenatchee) got a single mention. The late jazz great Larry Coryell, who learned his guitar chops in Richland, Washington before moving to Seattle and then on to jazz fusion history around the world only got a single mention. Jazz players and writers did not make much impact on the list…surprisingly Chehalis, Washington born Ralph Towner (of both the bands Oregon and The Paul Winter Consort) wasn’t mentioned at all. Nor was
I had promised not to mention names but I’m going to make an exception. Penelope Houston (who is a Northwesterner despite being mostly associated with San Francisco). Replied to my question with a simple “phew”; I assume because it’s so hard to begin listing the “important” songwriters that have come out of the Northwest. Of course she was too modest to name herself among those important songwriters. Houston’s writing in general deserves mention since her importance can never be overestimated. But it would be important based simply as a co-author of what may be the single greatest American punk anthem of all time: “The American In Me” The rest of her output stands above most others during the first wave of west coast punk as well.
As I’ve said there were a few artists named that baffled me. Perhaps it’s because I’m not familiar with their work or that they are in fact not from the Northwest. One of the artists named in this category was Bruce Hornsby. I agree that Hornsby is a terriffic songwriter but his bio states he was born in Williamsburg Virginia, and I could find no Northwest ties. If he does have ties in the Northwest, please contact me with the information. Another mention was of the Canadian musician and social justice activist Bill Bourne. Bill was closely associated with Scottish traditionalists The Tannahill Weavers during the 1980s. They were originally based in Paisley Scotland, but considered a world-renowned ensemble. Bill has also worked with various other world-roots and traditionalist artists including ex-Tannahill Weaver Alan MacLeodm, Shannon Johnson, Lester Quitzau,, Aysha Wills, Eivør Pálsdóttir, Wyckham Porteous, Madagascar Slim and Jasmine Ohlhauser. Bill was born in Red Deer Alberta, and grew up in Besides Alberta, Bill also spent time on the road worldwide, and for a short time in Toronto. Bill Bourne is certainly worthy of mention, as he’s won the Canadian Juno award several times. But I know of no Northwest connection outside of recording with vocalist Hans Stamer and Vancouver, B.C. guitarist Andreas Schuld on the album No Special Rider, released in 1997. Once again, if you know of ties to the Northwest, please leave them in the comments section.
A less baffling recommendation was saxophone great Skerik. I personally am not familiar with Skerik’s output as a songwriter, but definitely familiar with his (often improvised) brilliant performances. Perhaps I am underestimating his output, but I am certainly not underestimating his importance as a player or as an innovator. Please set the record straight as far as Skerik as a songwriter. He’s consistently been one of my favorite Northwest artists.
I suspect others were mentioned because they are important figures that deserves all of our respect. The most notable of these songwriters is Richard Peterson, who is practically a living treasure of Seattle. I was happy to see Anthony Ray (Sir-Mix-a-Lot) mentioned. The submitter rightly pointed out that Mix-a-Lot has undoubtedly influenced and outsold many of the indie and/or famous Seattle bands of the 1990s. So often people of color are left out of anything to do with “rock” no matter how much pull they have. Besides Mix-a-Lot, Ishmael Butler and Thee Satisfaction were mentioned because they are probably better known nationally and world-wide than many of the others on this list.
Finally we reach what I consider the pinnacle of “songwriters’ songwriters” These are the best of the best in my opinion. I know I have overlooked many great NW songwriters; but I consider these craftsmen to represent the high-water mark (so far) of not only Northwest writers, but among the entirety of ALL American songwriters. This list includes Ellensburg, Washington-born Mark Lanegan, Ellliott Smith (who was born in Texas but grew up and first found fame in Portland Oregon), Eugene Oregon native Tim Hardin, and a guy from Shreveport Louisiana who moved to Bremerton, Washington at an early age, the late Ron Davies. It was satisfying to see each ot these get multiple mentions.
I recognize that everyone has their favorite songwriter, and usually that person writes within at least one of the individual’s musical tastes. Keep in mind I said there are no wrong answers in this unscientific quiz or its overview. In fact I hate the Rolling Stone type lists of “bests”. Many of us know they are B.S. and some publications concoct these kinds of lists to drive circulation and advertising sales. If that’s not the case they’re often put together by elitist critics and celebrities. I believe everyone has a right to their personal favorites. I admit at one time I too was a snotty elitist who looked down on other people’s choices…but for many years now I have looked at music in a far more ecumenical way, and my musical horizons have expanded because of it.
If you have a favorite Northwest artist that you believe deserves recognition as an important songwriter post it in the comments section below. Your opinion is always valid no matter what others think and any additions to this list may well open whole new musical worlds to other people. I’ve also made a list of every songwriter submitted, since I have left so many talented people out of this story.. You may or may not agree if they’re worthy-but someone else does.
In the sidebar is a list of everyone voted for that I left out in the above article. It’s in no particular order of importance: Feel free to add your choice in the comments section below.
-Dennis R. White